Fulham somehow managed to take a match that they were dominating AFTER taking a two-goal lead in the second half and having its supporters greet the final whistle with the distinct feeling that The Whites had stolen a point. A point on the road is always good to have, and who would have been disappointed a month ago with the prospect of sharing the spoils with Charlton Athletic. But the Charlton side that Fulham faced early Sunday morning [0600 South Texas sub-Standard Time] was not the side who opened the Championship campaign with four wins on the trot. They were there ready to be taken, and taken they really should have been.
The first thing that struck me about the match was the sight of bright sunlight on the VERY quick pitch. My only visit to the valley was on a very murky day – it must have been in November – about 40 or so years ago. All I remember was the tallest single stand I’d ever seen, and thinking that everything looked like an old black and white movie. The stand is gone, and if you’d shown me several photos of the new Valley ground, I’d not have recognized anything. One thing from the old days has survived, however, and that’s the size of their pitch. I don’t know if there’s a more expansive one in the Football League.
Charlton’s manager has obviously built his side to take advantage of the spaces. With the pitch slick and alive, Charlton showed early on that their plan was to shoot long passes into open space beyond the final four for speedsters to run on. The match was barely a minute old when such a pass resulted in a Charlton shot going just wide. There followed several other forays, with Fulham’s back four called into action each time.
After the first ten minutes or so, the match turned into a more even affair, and by the half hour, Fulham looked the more dangerous of the two sides. A free kick awarded at least 40 yards from goal was taken by Ross McCormack on the 32nd minute. Despite the distance, he hammered a laser shot directly at Pope who was minding the Athletic goal. It skipped off the turf and Pope pushed it toward the penalty spot. In sped Ryan Tunnicliffe to tuck it away and it was 1-0. There followed several opportunities to extend the lead but hesitancy and clumsiness foiled Christensen and Dembele and the half ended 0-1.
The half time talk certainly dealt with shutting down Athletic’s only attacking weapon, because Fulham’s front line concentrated on closing down their opponents each time they lost the ball. The quick long pass out of defense was just a memory and, for the first 40 minutes of the second half, Fulham bossed the pitch. Ross McCormack’s remarkable goalscoring run continued when Ryan Tunnicliffe found him at the top of the penalty area in the 59th minute. Turn, strike, goal. 0-2.
And that should have been that. Kit Symons obviously thought so, because almost immediately after that goal he pulled off the ineffective Pringle and replaced him with Luke Garbutt – finally fit enough to make the game day squad. This wasn’t a defensive move, either. Garbutt took to Pringle’s wingback role with relish. He looks as if he may well be completely recovered. On the 75th minute, Cauley Woodrow came on for the very frustrated Moussa Dembele. Once again, the French teenager showed spirit, strength, pace, and discipline, but couldn’t convert any of those into either a goal or an assist. Woodrow does what Woodrow does when he comes on late in the match – he bustled about, ran his socks off, had a couple of very good shots go just wide.
And then the roof fell in. One minute after Johnny Jackson came on as a sub, he found himself completely unmarked on a corner – hauntingly familiar, ain’t it – and Charlton had pulled one back. More than that, however, the goal woke up the home supporters and the supporters woke up the players. From this point on, everyone supporting the Whites were looking at the clock and trying to make it go faster. Because of the two goals and the full complement of six substitutes, Referee Linington called for four minutes of stoppage time. After on-pitch treatment for Jazz Richards after he had cleared another goal threat, four minute expanded to six. With Athletic now hammering the Fulham goal – really for the only time in the match – the equalizer came from Cousins in the FIFTH minute of the 90th.
Gut punch city. I find it hard to fault Fulham’s game plan or the players execution of it for the defeat … er draw. Rather, it was the fact that the lead had five or six good chances to expand further before Jackson came onto the pitch. So in control were Fulham that the score should have been at least 0-4 by the time he arrived. The two Athletic goals were well taken – especially the equalizer – and they were really the only serious incursions into Fulham’s penalty area. Some times you plan well, you adjust well, you play well, and you still feel – well, like you stole a point from a match that you dominated for 80 minutes.
Individually? Well, I’m wondering who will be our left back when we play next. With the international break coming up, there’ll be plenty of time for Garbutt to be ready to play 90. Both showed attacking intent and defended well when called for. Tunnicliffe had an interesting stint – a goal, an assist, and the feeling that he wasn’t really into the match. The biggest disappointment for me was Christensen. LVC has two more matches to make a case for him to stay in the starting XI when Cairney comes back. He certainly did NOT make that case today.
HatterDon’s Man of the Match – well, it really has to be Ross McCormack. He was all over the pitch and Charlton’s defense never had an answer to him. There’s a special mention for Jamie O’Hara. When he left the pitch in the 90th, it was obvious he had given ever ounce and every sinew for the team. I hope he got some oxygen.
Oh, and well done the travelers. I think I heard every song you guys ever sung – loud, proud, and clear all the way over here in the People’s Republic. That, as much as anything else, made getting up early worth it.